In this May 2020 file photo, Lori Patterson shows off her garage library where she stores books ready to be dropped off for children and adults throughout the community. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

The garage is one of those spaces in your house that can get cluttered over time without you even realizing it. A cluttered garage is not only stressful, but it can also keep you from utilizing your garage in a way that is useful for you.

Organizing the garage is not an impossible task, though. Here are some tips from professional organizers on how to get the mess in your garage under control — and make that tidiness last.

Step 1: Decide your purpose

Before you start organizing your garage, you want to determine what, ideally, you would like to use the space for.

“For some people, it’s parking a car. For some people, it’s a workshop. for some people, it’s storage,” said Melissa Keyser, a professional organizer in Edgecomb. “You use that as your guiding benchmark for everything else around that.”

If you want to park your car in the garage, for example, Keyser said that you might have to find a better place for some of the things your garage currently holds. If you want to make a workshop, though, Keyser said you might prioritize making space for tables and workbenches; for storage, perhaps, clearing space for good shelving.

When determining the purpose for your garage, Kim Corey, owner of Finely Sorted Organizing in Bangor, said you should consider the available light, floor integrity, whether the space is exposed and who has access to the garage and when.

“Consider asking an organized friend to help or hire a professional organizer to help you navigate the process to be more sure,” Corey said.

Step 2: Take everything out

Next, determine what, exactly, you have to organize. The best way to do this is to take everything out of the garage so you can see it clearly.

“I think that if you’re doing kind of your initial first garage cleanout, it’s a lot easier to take everything out of the garage and put everything back in instead of doing it in the space,” Keyser said.

However, Keyser recognized that this may be difficult to do in the winter. Wait for a stretch of relatively warm and clear winter weather, or hold off on the garage organizing project until spring.

Step 3: Sort into categories

The next step is to sort the items from your garage.

Dawna Hall, owner of Organize ME! in Portland, said you might consider categories like those you would see at your local department store: lawn and garden, home improvement, sporting goods, Christmas decorations, electrical equipment and the like.

“Once your categories are created, edit them by eliminating items that are broken or missing parts,” Hall said. “If there are multiples, considering simplifying and donating the extras.”

Keep an eye out for items that are not appropriate for keeping in the garage as well.

“You can’t store paints in the garage in cold climates because they will freeze,” Corey said. “You can’t store matted art because the paper may shrivel in the moisture. You can’t leave important papers unsecured because mice will nest in them. If you have a drive-in garage you can’t leave items uncovered or they will be soiled by the dirt that the car brings in.”

It can be easy to get stuck in the decluttering stage of the cleaning process. Nancy Karp, owner of Domestic Bliss Organizing in Portland, said that if you are struggling to figure out what you want to throw or give away, make a pile for “undecided,” put it to the side and move along. Later you can ask yourself questions of the individual items, like, “Do you use it? Do you like it? Do you need it?”

Another way to deal with organizational paralysis is to break organizing into half-hour chunks.

“Set a timer for 30 minutes,” Karp said. “When the timer is up, you can decide, ‘I’m going to stop [and] take a break,’ or you can decide, ‘This is great and I’m going to do another 30 minutes.’ A half-an-hour is a perfect time to see some results, get some things done or decide you want to keep going or take a break and come back another day.”

Step 4: Take out the trash

Now, it’s time to toss (or donate) whatever you aren’t keeping

Keyser said to make sure you also have a plan for what you are going to do with items you plan to donate or throw away. This might include renting a dumpster, renting a truck to haul things to the thrift store or blocking off a day on your calendar for a dump run.

“Make a plan for how you’re going to get stuff out,” Keyser said. “If you don’t have a plan, all that stuff is going to be piled in a corner.”

Step 5: Shop intentionally

Once everything is sorted and the piles of stuff have been winnowed down, you can get to the business of putting them back in an organized fashion. But don’t start shopping for organizing gear yet.

“Before rushing out to buy a whole bunch of bins — because I know that can be really tempting — first, really focus on what it is you want to keep and group those things together,” Keyser said. “Look at how much space those items need and purchase a container to fit them in. I always recommend using temporary storage containers until you figure that out. They might not be beautiful and matching but find out if that system works for you before you go out and spend a bunch of money on nice containers.”

Also, make sure you measure your space before you buy any additional shelving, containers or totes.

“That way, you can utilize most of that space,” said Becca Beaulieu, owner of Perfectly Placed P.O in Lewiston.

After you know how much space you have, invest in quality shelving, which allows you to utilize the vertical space in a garage and keep items off of the floor. For simplicity’s sake, Keyser said to opt for free standing racks in general rather than hanging shelving.

“You have to invest in the right brackets because things in the garage are heavy,” she said. “Other things that can be useful are hooks for gardening equipment. The more things you can get off of the floor the better.”

When it comes to choosing bins or totes to organize items in your garage, Keyser suggested choosing clear, open-topped bins to get started.

“The key is to make it easy to put away,” Keyser said. “You can have a little bit of effort to pull something out because you’re excited to use it, but at the end of the day it has to be real simple to put away or else it’s not going to get put away.”

Step 6: Find a spot for everything

Next, figure out a spot for every item in your garage.

“The goal is to give the items you use, a convenient, consistent place so that they are easy to retrieve and put away,” Hall said. “Labeling shelves and bins will hold people accountable to the ‘I didn’t know where to put it’ issue.”

For placement, consider which things you use most often. Keep those closer to eye level in easy-to-access spots.

You might even consider a seasonal rotation of items twice a year.

“The winter stuff needs to get put on a higher shelf, and then your summer stuff comes down,” Keyser said. “Just make that part of your household routine.”

Also, consider who is using the items — especially if you have kids.

“If kids are expected to put away sporting goods, they need to be able to reach the area where that is going, or else they’re going to get that on the floor,” Keyser said.

For safety’s sake, heavier equipment should stay on lower shelves or on the floor. Be careful with siting locations for potentially hazardous materials as well.

“Obviously, you don’t want to store your gas cans next to your furnace,” Keyser said. “You want to make sure you have access to your oil boiler, and don’t lean things against it. It’s common sense type stuff.”